Saturday, July 2, 2011

Where do children rank among state budget priorities?

This is not a trick question: Of these three states -- South Carolina, Alabama or Kentucky -- which values the lives of its children most?

I'll give you a hint: The answer isn't South Carolina.

In fact, South Carolina won't even take second place out of the three options, given the choices made by our lawmakers in recent years.

This week, the General Assembly voted to override Governor Nikki Haley's veto of a plan to use $12.4 million in unclaimed lottery money to buy school buses. That's great. Nearly 400,000 public schoolchildren in South Carolina ride school buses. But will we be buying new buses, or used ones?

An item in yesterday's Bluffton Today raises the issue.

"A couple years ago I put my child on a school bus for a field trip, and I walked up and talked to the bus driver and said, 'How many miles do you have on this bus?'" said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland. "He said, 'Sir, I couldn't tell you. The odometer is broke.'"

It's not a funny story, and I'm sure Lourie didn't tell it to get a laugh. It's tragic, and it's a perfect illustration of the immorality of our state budget.

It appears that when faced with the need to provide transportation for all of South Carolina's public schoolchildren to and from their schools, our state's leaders have done what they always do: They compare prices and look for the cheapest way out. It seems that not even the lives and safety of our children are worthy of being a first, or high, priority in state budgeting -- especially not when their lives and safety are competing against such proposals as tax breaks for corporate interests.

In 2005, we bought 72 used buses from Kentucky. Kentucky appreciated our business and apparently kept our number for later reference.

In 2007, the Charleston Post & Courier published a series titled "School Bus Breakdown," concluding that our school buses are "the nation's oldest, most polluting and least safe."

--The average South Carolina bus is 14 years old, while the national average is nine years old. A substantial number of buses built in the mid-1980s are still transporting children to and from school.

--The state recorded nearly 12,000 bus breakdowns during the 2005-06 school year, many of which required children to get off the bus and wait on the side of a dangerous road until another bus arrived.

--Other state agencies have more modern buses than the Education Department. The Corrections Department's buses average 10 years in age, meaning prisoners enjoy newer buses than schoolchildren.

Read that again, with feeling: "Prisoners enjoy newer buses than schoolchildren."

When the Post & Courier published its series, a proposal was under consideration to adopt a plan to annually replace school buses.

Under the replacement cycle, the state would buy about 375 new buses every year at a cost of nearly $30 million. Many states and individual school districts around the country already have laws that force aging school buses into retirement.
The average age of a South Carolina school bus is 14 years, five years older than the national bus average age of nine years. Many of the state's buses are much older and lack modern safety features, such as additional emergency exits and anti-lock brakes. The average Palmetto State bus has traveled more than 200,000 miles, and many have clocked more than 400,000 miles.

Three guesses about how that plan turned out.

In 2007, lawmakers approved the plan to annually replace school buses.

In 2009, lawmakers appropriated no money to buy buses.

In 2010, lawmakers appropriated no money to buy buses. But we were lucky: Kentucky called us again. That state "discarded" scores of 18-year-old school buses -- meaning that Kentucky's leaders judged them unfit to transport Kentucky's little children to and from school, even one more day -- and Kentucky put these buses up for auction. We bid on 87 of them and won the right to buy 85 -- which means that Kentucky profited from our highest bids -- at an average price of $3,800. With these, we were able to "retire" some our 26- and 27-year-old buses.

In January 2011, we bought 24 used school buses, with an average age of 11 years, from an Alabama school district "that replaced them with new vehicles," according to The State. We used these to "retire" some more of our 23- and 24-year-old buses. Since the legislature didn't appropriate any funding for them, how did the Department of Education pay for them? The State tells us:

To buy the Alabama buses, the Education Department used money it raised from selling to scrap metal companies the skeletal remains of S.C. buses cannibalized for replacement parts.

And how did Alabama sell its buses? It auctioned them, which means that Alabama, too, profited from our highest bids. We bid on 44 and won the right to buy 24 of them, at an average cost of $8,000. Their mileages, The State said, ranged 44,000 to 110,500.

So it was against this backdrop that our governor this week vetoed a proposal to spend $12.4 million of unclaimed lottery money -- not new appropriations from the General Fund, which would represent a state funding priority, but from a pot of money that inattentive lottery winners never stepped up to claim; or, not to put too fine a point on it, but FREE MONEY, accidentally available to the state -- on buying slightly-safer school buses for our children. Her Excellency's reason for depriving schoolchildren of slightly-safer school buses paid for with found money?

Haley's veto message said she objected to the unclaimed lottery money being spent on school buses because the state should be focused on privatizing the bus system.

Privatization: A system by which someone profits from South Carolina's appropriations for public schools -- just as Kentucky and Alabama profited several times in the past seven years from our purchase of their aged, decommissioned vehicles at auction.

The answer to the question at the top of this note is both Alabama and Kentucky. If we cared as much for our children as they do, we wouldn't buy another state's cast-off school buses. We would appropriate the funding necessary and buy new ones.

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